Vocational Idolatry?: Eugene Peterson on Recovering Vocational Holiness for Pastors [Under the Unpredictable Plant 1]

I recently re-read Eugene Peterson’s classic book on pastoral ministry based in the life of Jonah, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Eerdmans, 1992). There is so much in this book, but I am merely sharing a few pieces that have stuck out powerfully to me in this particular season of time.

Near the beginning of the book, Peterson sets out issue which he is trying to address in pastoral calling through the book of Jonah. Based on his own crisis of pastoral ministry, Peterson puts before pastors the need to recover not just holiness, but vocational holiness. Here he explains what he means by that.

Why do pastors have such a difficult time being pastors? Because we are awash in idolatry. Where two or three are gathered together and the name of God comes up, a committee is formed for making an idol. We want gods that are not gods so we can “be as gods.”

The idolatry to which pastors are conspicuously liable is not personal but vocational, the idolatry of a religious career that we can take charge of and manage.

Vocational holiness, in deliberate opposition to career idolatry, is my subject. Personal holiness, the lifelong process by which our hearts and minds and bodies are conformed to Christ, is more often addressed. But it is both possible and common to develop deep personal pieties that coexist alongside vocational idolatries without anyone noticing anything amiss. If the pastor is devout, it is assumed that the work is also devout. The assumption is unwarranted. Sincerity in a carpenter does not ensure an even saw cut. Neither does piety in a pastor guarantee true pastoral work. My impression is that the majority of pastors are truly good, well intentioned, even godly. But their goodness does not inevitably penetrate their vocations.

The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol—a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing.

Pastors commonly give lip service to the vocabulary of a holy vocation, but in our working lives we more commonly pursue careers. Our actual work takes shape under the pressure of the marketplace, not the truth of theology or the wisdom of spirituality. I would like to see as much attention given to the holiness of our vocations as to the piety of our lives.

Basically, all I am doing is trying to get it straight, get straight what it means to be a pastor, and then develop a spirituality adequate to the work. The so-called spirituality that was handed to me by those who put me to the task of pastoral work was inadequate. I do not find the emaciated, exhausted spirituality of institutional careerism adequate. I do not find the veneered, cosmetic spirituality of personal charisma adequate. I require something biblically spiritual—rooted and cultivated in creation and covenant, leisurely in Christ, soaked in Spirit.

Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 4-5.

Ten Ways Eugene Peterson Shaped My Pastoral Ministry

peterson-square1My first introduction to the work of Eugene Peterson was through one of my college roommates, who often read from Peterson’s paraphrase of Scripture, The Message. In his own idiosyncratic style, Peterson’s work with the words of Scripture helped me remember God’s word was a relational word to us here and now. Roughly five years later, one of my mentors, Dr. Lyle Dorsett, introduced me to Peterson’s works on pastoral ministry, often referred to as Eugene Peterson’s Pastoral Library. Those works helped me ponder pastoral ministry in a deeper way than I had before. Since that time, I have continued to read and interact with Peterson’s work in ways that have deeply shaped my approach to pastoral ministry.

When the family of Eugene Peterson announced that he passed away on Monday after entering into hospice care recently, I took time to reflect on how he shaped my own approach to vocation as a pastor. Although I never met him, Eugene Peterson significant impacted my life as a pastor. What I have tried to do below is share ten specific ways Eugene Peterson shaped my pastoral ministry.

  1. The Pastor works with the word. Both through his work on The Message and his approach to writing other books that I read Eugene Peterson taught me that pastoral ministry is primarily about working with the word of God. Looking through Peterson’s works, you will quickly realize that most of his efforts are direct treatments of books of the Bible, whether Jeremiah, the Psalms, or Ephesians. “Scripture is at hand for those who will use it, foundation stones upon which a better pastoral work can be constructed” (Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 11).
  2. The Pastor is shaped by the word. Unfortunately, sometimes as we work with the word, we fail to let the word work on us. Peterson knew this, so he made it clear that the pastor must be shaped by the word personally and deeply. In his outstanding book, Eat This Book, Peterson outlines the simple yet profound truth that the we must not only read Scripture informationally but engage more deeply by “reading the Scripture formatively, reading in order to live” (xi).
  3. The Pastor prays. Of all the things that a pastor could be about, prayer seems essential. Still, it is the unfortunate testimony of too many pastors that prayer falls to the wayside in the midst of meetings, strategies, committees, and writing sermons. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Peterson writes: “The inner action of prayer takes precedence over the outer action of proclamation. The implication of this for pastoral work is plain: it begins in prayer” (40).
  4. The Pastor preaches. In one of his last books, a collection of sermons entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Peterson reveals that early in his twenty-nine-year pastorate at Bel Air Presbyterian, he quickly realized that he did not know how to preach. Citing the influence of a lecture by Paul Tournier and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Peterson writes: “I finally started to get it: preaching is the weekly verbal witness to this essential congruence of what Christ is with his work that ‘plays’ in us….Not ideas, not goals, not principles, nothing abstract or disembodied, but the good news of the ‘Word . . . made flesh’ (John 1:14)” (xix).
  5. The Pastor reads. One of my favorite books by Peterson, though perhaps not as well-known as others, is Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List. This book is Peterson’s personal annotated bibliography of recommended reading on topics from prayer to commentaries, poetry to history. You cannot read Peterson’s work without understanding he read widely, and it informed the way he approached ministry, understood the world, and interacted with people. Pastoral ministry is fueled by reading, but not just reading alone. It is fueled by thoughtful and well-chosen reading.
  6. The Pastor as spiritual director. Peterson was the first who helped me step outside of the realm of counseling to recover the lost art of spiritual direction for pastoral ministry. “Spiritual direction takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (Working the Angles 150). As a spiritual director, the pastor helps another person pay attention to the everyday areas of their life, listening for God’s word to them, with a discernment that derives “out of a life immersed in the pursuit of holiness” (160). The pastor is less concerned with helping someone find the answer they want, and is more concerned with helping them find the God they need.
  7. The pastor as poet. In one of his lesser known works, Holy Luck, Eugene Peterson assembles a small collection of his own poetry. These had leaked out in other works before, but it was a glimpse at the connection between poetic work with words and pastoral work with words. As he wrote elsewhere: “In subtle ways, being a pastor subjects our word to corruption. That is why it is important to frequent the company of a poet friend . . . a person who cares about words and is honest with them, who respects and honors their sheer overwhelming power” (The Contemplative Pastor 156). Like a good poet, pastors take care with their words.
  8. The pastor as theologian. I love the way Peterson describes his recommendation to read Calvin’s Institutes: “Spirituality includes the mind—the thinking mind, attempting to follow and respond to the mind of God as well as his heart. Calvin’s heart was on fire, but his mind was clear. This is some of the keenest theology ever written, but written, every word of it, by a pastor in the middle of a parish of rather unruly sinner-Christians” (Take and Read 5). The pastor must be a clear thinker to bring the heart and mind of God into the lives of everyday people in their unruly, workaday lives.
  9. The pastor whose imagination is on fire. In two different works, Reversed Thunder and The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson links together St. John’s visions in Revelation with the dynamics of pastoral ministry. “How can I avoid metamorphosis from the holy vocation of pastor into a promising career in religious sales? Here is a way: submit my imagination to St. John’s apocalypse—the crisis of the End combined with the urgencies of God—and let the energies of the apocalyptic define and shape me as a pastor” (The Contemplative Pastor 41-42). The pastor without an imagination is a pastor without creativity and likely one who cannot minister well to another. The pastor must let God split our heads open wide that we might see anew with apocalyptic eyes and hear the world with apocalyptic ears.
  10. The pastor who perseveres. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is still probably my favorite book by Eugene Peterson. Stealing his title from nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Peterson baptizes the reader into a pilgrim faith through the water of the Psalms of Ascent. “It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel,” he writes, “it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest” (16).

And so, the pilgrim pastor, who shepherded so many of us under-shepherds, has now passed through the valley of death’s shadow and entered into the green pastures and still waters found in our Heavenly Father’s presence. May God be so gracious as to help us pastors still here to sustain our own pilgrim faith until we join Eugene Peterson in the presence of God ourselves.